Fiction

Interview: “Wait for the Empire to Come Home.” We Talk With Michael Zapata on His Debut Novel

Michael Zapata is a founding editor of the award-winning MAKE Literary Magazine. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction; the City of Chicago DCASE Individual Artist Program award; and a Pushcart Nomination. As an educator, he taught literature and writing in high schools servicing dropout students. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and has lived in New Orleans, Italy, and Ecuador. He currently lives in Chicago with his family.

Michael Zapata’s debut The Lost Book of Adana Moreau

Michael Zapata’s debut novel The Lost Book of Adana Moreau tells the riveting story of first-generation immigrant young adults as they navigate the racial politics of New Orleans and Chicago generations apart. They share their love of science fiction and its promise of infinite possibility. Michael and I met virtually to discuss his work this past June.

I started reading The Lost Book of Adana Moreau right as the police brutality protests kicked off. Couldn’t have been better timing—The Lost Book is all about history repeating itself.

I have a close friend, Waleeta Canon, an activist, who’s Assyrian—her family is refugees from Iraq. She used to say, “Wait for the empire to come home.”

America, in some form or another, has been militarized against Black communities for 400 years. Over the course of writing this novel, I was thinking about how the United States has ramped up militarization abroad. Once there’s nowhere for those markets of militarization to go, they come home. For us. For Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities. For the working class. For leftists. That’s been one of the most terrifying things of the past couple of weeks. Obviously being Latino, with Trump, and the camps—I’m half Lithuanian Jewish and half Ecuadorian—I can’t even make sense out of the fact that there are camps. I’ve been thinking about her words. She’s been saying that for years.

You thanked many high school and college friends in your acknowledgement section. Have they acted as a sort of activist-writer cohort salon for you?

Those friends, as well as my students, are my political guideposts. I taught high school dropouts for 10 years so I was involved in activism then and now. I just try to listen to them as much as possible. By even allowing someone to paint a portrait of themselves, they become natural storytellers.

I also have my own interest in protest, and things that have been happening in Latin America over the past 20 years. They did inform a lot of the novel in the way that history works. Movements and revolutions against capitalism and neoliberalism have been happening for a long, long time.

The novel itself I wrote for one person, a dear friend who died in my early twenties, Matt Davis. I dedicated the book to him. He was, like myself, bi-racial, half black and half white, and he grew up in Kansas. We’d have long conversations about empire and being bi-racial. He was part of the Afro-punk movement early on—in fact he’s profiled in this documentary about Black musicians in the punk scene. He was an amazing guy, just a pure artist, musician, singer. He was in the prime of his screamcore, punk-rock life, touring Europe and the States with his band Ten Grand when he passed away. He was my roommate and I was very close to him. This book was just written for him.

That works with the themes in the book—it feels like each one of these characters is writing or creating something for someone they lost.

What the book was supposed to look like when it’s published wasn’t something I thought out. During the writing process, Matt helped me cancel the noise of what’s supposed to happen in a book. I would try not to worry about the craft stuff, and more about what would make Matt enjoy the book. Matt would talk to me about re-writing songs, about what he would cut in a song, or how would he enjoy this or that more. It was such a fun, interesting, melancholy thing to revisit him in this way, and then be able to send the book to his family. His sister, Jo Davis-McElligatt, in a twist of fate, is an assistant professor of Black Literary Studies at University of North Texas, and she specializes in speculative Afro-Latinx works. That was mind-blowing for me when we were emailing.

My next book is “What story do I want for my sons? What kind of world do I want my sons to live in?” It’s a book particularly for them. It really slims down the noise, and it’s the only way I know how to I write at this point.

Your characters learn difficult historical truths and become politicized via oral storytelling, rather than from any formal education. One character keeps her son home from school because she believes school would destroy his ability to think and reason, especially when it came to history, politics, and math.

Yes, especially, like Maxwell Moreau, being a kid of color in New Orleans in the 1930s, or any time. I saw a post the other day posing the question, “Were your AP classes in high school radicalizing?” Many Black and brown writers said yes—but not for the reasons you think.

I remember my junior AP American History teacher told me, upon learning that my family was from Ecuador and half indigenous, that the indigenous people in Latin America “got what they deserved” from the conquistadors.

What?!

Yeah. That’s a great thing to tell a 17-year-old to radicalize them. From then on I knew that teacher was officially a liar and so I took that history class as a lesson—but not as history.

I became a high school teacher because I hated high school for those same reasons. I taught dropouts, kids whom the system had failed. Since publication of The Lost Book, I’ve been thinking about how young people talk about their lives in exile, whether it’s exile from schools or families. We had a lot of students who were undocumented, or working night shifts to help their families get by. We had a good portion who were LGBTQ students who had been exiled from their families or neighborhoods, so we were helping them find homes. My students were ready to tell their stories. Not only for other people, but for themselves, to make sense of their life.

So even though the novel is not directly about high school students in Chicago, they did influence the way I thought about how people tell stories. I’m a big fan of oral tradition—it was my first literature growing up. My dad learned English when I did as a kid. There’s also that Jewish tradition of “Jewish people have long memories.” We’d sit around the dinner table telling stories about my great grandmother, about her exile, and my dad’s immigration to the US.

Oral tradition is the first literature for so many people. I was joking to a friend that when I went to college I didn’t realize literature in America wasn’t that oral tradition I grew up with.

I bonded with the few other students of color in my class. People—teachers, administration—kept saying these voices were “under-represented” and “silenced.” But those were the only voices I grew up with. It was mind-blowing to me that people in power were telling me the exact opposite.

In Lost Book, you adapted the oral tradition style for the page in a very engaging way. It reminded me of the Latin American style of prose, using these long paragraphs, lots of detail, and a storytelling flow building to a climax, where the last sentence completely upends, contradicts, or sheds new light on the preceding paragraph. I never knew what was going to be at the end of a paragraph—sometimes it would make me laugh, sometimes it would make me scream! It made for a delightful read, impossible to put down.

I read a lot of Latin American literature first in the Spanish, then in the English translation—so when I write, I feel like I’m writing Spanish in translation. When I’m writing in that mode, I feel comfort there. It’s a new way to look at English.

I grew up with TV novelas and my dad’s stories. I was always a very avid reader and grew up on science fiction too, so the ways I first think about storytelling are through that lens. One of my favorites is the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who does these gorgeous modernist novellas, where you don’t know what to expect because it’s not building towards that pre-organized, film structure that so much American literature uses. Roberto Bolaño does that to a fascinating degree as well. Then you have Borges, where you don’t know what to expect from one word to the next.

I just read this bilingual edition novel by Claudia Hernández called They Have Fired Her Again. It’s about this one woman who keeps leaving and getting fired from jobs, but you never hear from her perspective, it’s all told in this choral arrangement from her coworkers. It’s a brilliant structure—she is the empty space around which the story is told. It’s really beautiful to read the Spanish and then the English. I like the English so much because you have these run-on sentences and different structure.

When you translate Spanish into English, you have different English constructions that make sense to me growing up as bi-lingual. So I always like being in that reading space.

I noticed that you used the Latin American style of quotes and not quotes instead of the US-American.

Latin American literature forces you to go against some of these American conceptions of literature. Someone on Goodreads was very funny about my book, they just said, “put some damn quotes around your dialogue,” which was a joy to see! And someone on Twitter said that if you don’t use quotes it’s pretentious. But it never made sense to me based on the Latin American literature and looking at oral tradition as part of the geography and part of the actual structure of the story.

Dialogue is more part of the environment as opposed to this blocked “argument, counterargument” structure you see in US literature, where people take turns talking. I’m always bothered by the American diction of “I have this full idea I’m going to introduce in a scene and then someone else will counter” and it will build towards a structured conflict. That’s not how people can talk! It’s not how my Jewish family talked, it’s not how my Latin American family talked. There’s interjections, and disagreements and clarifications, so the dialogue itself becomes the scene.

I find this is done very well in Jewish novels and Latin American novels. There’s always value in reading works in translation. When I read a particularly good something in Spanish it’s not unlike hearing my dad tell a good story, and my dad can tell a story for 40 minutes easily. It always felt like a comfort zone.

In The Lost Book…, you repudiate the idea of science fiction as a white-dominated space. You include all these writers of color who composed these tomes and masterpieces, building this world where science fiction is not this white, US-American thing, but something that belongs to all kinds of people. This is more believable than the reality I’ve been told.

Americans have done a great job documenting nerd culture and its lack of representation. While those are all important issues, my experience has been different. Growing up, the people I knew who read science fiction weren’t so much a part of a “nerd culture,” but rather science fiction was the way they viewed the world.

Science fiction is a way to attack society’s ideals, to redress and rewrite a stolen history. The people who love sci-fi the deepest are not so much a part of nerd culture as they are expelling their worldview on paper. Those people have been the most critical of American society and history. I think of Samuel Delany, a sci-fi writer who came of age in the 60s and 70s and was part of the early LGBTQ movement. He wrote this masterpiece called Dhalgren which attacks race issues and gender issues. It’s a monster 800-page novel set in this post-apocalyptic, hallucinogenic city that’s constantly transforming. I read it in my early twenties. For me, it was a mind-blowing attack on how American culture tried to socialize gender and race. I didn’t know sci-fi could do that.

When I was a younger writer I never wanted to write “the kitchen scene” of a couple arguing, or the “divorce novel.” I wanted to be like Samuel Delany. It wasn’t unlike what Latin American writers were doing at the same time. So I don’t think of sci-fi as “nerd culture” but rather as a form of critique too, more so to me, at least, than the classical “realist” novels Americans love so much and which mostly erase people of color.

I remember taking creative writing classes and the teachers saying “If it has magic, it’s bad” and “world-building is a crutch.” Then I woke up one day and understood—of course the cishet-white-patriarchy establishment doesn’t want us to think about the different ways that societies can work! Which is the core exercise of fantasy and sci-fi.

Critiquing the literary individual is a very centrist, conservative approach. What mistakes did this individual make? What will be the atonement in the novel? And so forth.

Michael Zapata

It’s such a joy to talk to my friends who are Latin American readers primarily. I have a friend, a brilliant writer who’s Colombian, Aroldo Nery, and we got drinks in New Orleans one time when he was getting his masters at Tulane. He asked me, “Explain to me American’s fascination with separating genre?” It was a simple question but it really smacked me. What is our fascination with it?

Through the course of the night, talking and drinking, we discussed how Latin American literature is more about unstable realism. You don’t have this movie arc. You often don’t even have the three acts. You can almost fit any genre in there, including magical realism or science fiction. The things that have been happening in Latin America for years, the CIA involvement and military-backed dictators creates an unstable reality politically in any country. The writers there have contested with that a lot longer than we have. I’m seeing many amazing American writers right now blurring genre, or making genre irrelevant, or finding unstable reality. The “literary writer” is going to start doing “genre” novels more and more—and it’s a lot of catching up to Latin American lit.

American lit is starting to realize the empire even exists. If the empire is coming home, our literature for sure is going to be reconciling things that were happening in the Middle East and in Latin American 20 years ago.

The heartbreaking parts of the novel for me happened when a character would think about a “parallel universe” in which their mom was still alive, or where some horrible destructive act of colonialism didn’t destroy their homes and families. I was thinking, in a way you’re transforming sci-fi into a liberation theology of a sort.

That’s interesting. Liberation theory in Catholicism does that. We have this idea that American religion is very right wing—but we don’t address Liberation Theology in Latin American Catholicism.

My mother’s Jewish, my dad’s Catholic, I’m atheist. One of my first jobs after graduating was running an after-school center at a Catholic high school in Wicker Park with a bunch of activist nuns and they were pretty phenomenal. I told them during the interview that I didn’t know what I was—maybe secular Jewish, but definitely atheist! They were so loving and said it wasn’t an issue and made a big show to take down the cross for me in the room. They were amazing and they fit into that liberation mode. They’re individuals who risked their lives in the 60s and 70s for marches on voter liberation in the south. They were my amigos, I loved them.

Tell me about your research into theoretical physics for the novel.

Theoretical physicists are the smartest people on the planet! They are both terrifying and an absolute joy to talk to. Physicists tend to be at the forefront of how culture forms. A question I always asked them in the research interviews was, “What do you go home with?”

Einstein was a refugee. He came up with the theory of relativity. He described the concept of space and time so eloquently it changed how people thought about their own lives.

It got me thinking how, if you asked a colonial general in 18th or 19th century Britain, “How do you think the people in India, or the people in Beijing, view the Empire?” they couldn’t answer. They couldn’t even imagine there were different realities. Colonialism, like fascism, super-imposes a singular reality on other people.

Then you have Einstein telling us that space and time doesn’t work that way, and people interpreted it to mean we need to take a view on reality, and acknowledge that people have different perspectives.

I think physicists are doing it again today with this explosion of discoveries. Parallel universes went from being this foxhole, ridiculed idea to the mainstream. You know how people ridicule Maxwell for these ideas in the novel? In the 1970s, physicists did ridicule other physicists who were developing the math models for an expanding universe and quantum infinite possibilities. But now it’s part of the general physicist discourse where everyone has to deal with it. And no one knows how to deal.

For us as writers and readers, we can extend that idea of different realties even further. Being a first-generation immigrant, you’re navigating the rules of a new reality and you’re learning a new language. Immigrants are often forced to think about possibility in a much more expanding way than if you’re born in this country or not to immigrant parents. So many possibilities are blatantly slammed or are closed for you, very viscerally and immediately. You must constantly then be thinking what is possible for you. There’s a lot of love and loss and regret in that, but it’s something people of color and immigrants contend with often. What if we hadn’t invaded Iraq, what if we hadn’t backed Pinochet and hundreds of thousands of people hadn’t disappeared? There’s no clear answers to it but it’s something I thought about a lot when writing the book.

You also in your acknowledgements thank a grandfather with the same surname as the protagonist. Is this your real family?

Same surname, but it’s not my real family. But there are some parallels and maybe more interesting things. I had known my great-grandmother, she lived until I was 13 or 14. She was a refugee, a badass. She fled Lithuania on foot, possibly to Spain.

That was a character in the book!

Yes, with a different location. When I was a kid she called me a luftmensch. The grandfather in the book calls Javier that. It’s a Yiddish term that translates to “cloud of possibilities” but it really means your head is in the clouds.

Her granddaughter, my mother, went to Ecuador to study Spanish and met my dad. The writer in me asks why would a working class, Southside, Jewish girl high-tail it to Ecuador? I always wondered what her interest in Spanish was, and if my great-grandmother had said something to her with a few words of Spanish. I asked my mom and she said, “I don’t know, I just went.”

Ecuador creates a similar sense to living in New Orleans. The sense of this unstable reality. There’s more melancholy, more joy, more everything because of that. I remember I was supposed to go to Quito and then the volcano Cotopaxi was going to explode and the city was covered in like four inches of ash and I couldn’t visit my family. That’s an example of unstable reality.

Twenty-first century Ecuador has resisted American imperialism more than other countries. The indigenous there have more political influence, due to the social revolution, as they call it. Those groups are at the forefront of fighting capitalism and imperialism, and extractivism in the jungle. My aunt is indigenous—she was born in the same village as my dad and now is a judge. She was able to go to law school because of those scholarships and quotas that were built into the new constitution. At the end of the day it’s just a lovely, beautiful place. I just want people to go.

I’ve lived in Ecuador a few times, so I’m very close with my dad’s family there. My grandfather there is turning 101 this August. He was a labor activist, he helped build a truckers’ union and a farmers’ union in the 60s through the 80s so he’s pretty well known. His father founded a small village there, Santa Fe, and he was a writer. He was a leftist and a political exile but secretly wrote poetry his entire life. We didn’t find his manuscripts until this past August. There’s so much to mine from there and I don’t know how yet. I was lucky to interview my grandfather in Ecuador, and I need to find time to do something with it.

As far as my next novel, I want to get an angry, futurist monologue out of my head first, and then I’ll revisit the historical, maybe in a novel about Chicago’s Jeweler’s Row. For example, my dad was a jeweler on Jewelers’ Row in Chicago, where there were a lot of Latin American and Jewish workers. So much of my dad’s job was story, and I never really thought about it until becoming a father. He was a caster, so he would make the jewelry. Behind many pieces he made there was a story to tell.  And I would notice this growing up, when I worked with him on Jewelers’ Row, I spent summers working with him, it was a family business. People would come in and he would tell them stories or they would tell stories, and it was interesting how the ways in which people interact with jewelry. You have legacy pieces that are passed down through family that need to be re-fitted. You have wedding bands and the narrative of the relationship behind it. Then you have the divorce, what do you do with a wedding band or ring after the divorce? My dad would become this impromptu working-class therapist for people who weren’t sure if they wanted to get married or go through a divorce proceeding or who were in a family fight about legacy pieces.

It’s a lot of de-escalation.

That’s a great way to put it! There’s a lot of de-escalation. There is one part in the novel where Javier is talking about his dad who’s a jeweler and a Salvadoran refugee, a jewelry caster who gives him drawings of prisons in San Salvador. That happened to me!

I must’ve been 16 or 17 at the time and my dad must’ve told the Salvadoran jeweler that I liked to read and write. And what’s fascinating to me is I guess I wrote about it, years later, and I don’t know what happened to him.  But there are so many stories like that in Jeweler’s Row.

So you wanted to write since you were a teen?

I always knew I wanted to write in some capacity. It was a dream of mine. I didn’t know any writers, so I didn’t know it was a feasible thing for years and years. Many of the people I grew up with who are avid readers now weren’t readers until their 20s or 30s! I started, more or less, when I was 25. And I never got an MFA.

I think you would get into a lot of fights in an MFA program.

It’s funny, I actually did go to Iowa for undergrad. I asked my counselor in high school where writers go to college, and they said University of Iowa. That was the only place I applied to—and we couldn’t afford it! But a high school advisor, who felt like a family friend, helped. She knew my parents didn’t know how to navigate college applications or scholarships, so she asked their permission to sign off on scholarship applications. I wound up getting a full ride to Iowa.

I got to attend an undergrad version of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I did get into fights there! While I did have some great teachers there, the workshop style wasn’t for me. It was a deep dive into the craft and talking about structure and conflicts, and it was hard for me to think of books through those means then.

In addition to English, I studied evolutionary biology. I was drawn to that because those big life questions about existence weren’t happening in the workshops.

My wife is a brilliant artist and public middle school art teacher and has her master’s in art history. We were talking one day about how ridiculous it would it be if you brought eighth graders to the Art Institute, put them in front of a Mark Bradford or Picasso, and you gave them this hand out that said “please describe the conflict” or “what does blue mean?” It’s this deconstructive that turns kids away from art. I felt the workshop was doing that for college students. Then I’d go into Evolutionary Biology class full of the best science nerds asking, “What does it mean to be human?” “When did humanity start?” And then we go through fossil records, looking for answers. There were also evolutionary biologists asking “When did storytelling start? When did language start?” These big questions are super fun for a first-gen college student, not knowing what to expect out of college at all.

I want to keep writing about scientists, I think. I’m researching one about a census worker in the future in Chicago. His mom is an Ecuadorian ecologist in the Amazon. I know I want to write about those two people and see what happens. So much has happened since February and March, that it feels like an unstable reality more so than science fiction. I’m fairly obsessed with Yuri Herrera’s Transmigration of Bodies and Roberto Bolaño’s novel Amulet and I’d like to see if I could write a 200-page monologue under the direct inspiration or maybe encouragement of novels like those.

So how did you kick off your writing career?

Fifteen years ago, I started a literary magazine with a few friends called MAKE Literary Magazine. That’s when I found out what MFA programs were, and I did apply to some, and I got into some, and then I looked at the cost. I think being first-generation, the idea of paying a university to learn how to write was a problem for me at that age. I was teaching public high school, a great union job I loved. An MFA wasn’t for me, especially at that time in my life. So I thought I’d make a literary magazine and make it my own. It was a lot of work, for years and years, but, thanks to an innumerable amount of editors, artists, and writers, it’s still going strong. We’ve had 18 issues, and we had our last print this spring, and now we’re going online.

Some years ago, I left to focus more fully on writing, but I’m still a happily wandering member of the Board. What I’m most proud of to see develop is a festival called Lit & Luz, which is a literary festival and cultural exchange with artists and writers in Mexico City. With ICE and immigration and everything, it’s something I’ve always wanted to see MAKE be a part of. Sarah Dodson, the Executive Director of MAKE, is the mastermind behind this extraordinary festival. And now a younger generation is taking over the mantle too. They’ve made it so much more substantive, I love it.

Your work reminded me of some of the Chicago author’s I’ve covered recently—Gint Aras also talks about Lithuanian exile stories, and Sahar Mustafah in her debut this spring talks about similar themes in the Palestinian-American community here in Chicago. All three of you address historical memory with different styles that resonate with one another.

Chicago is interesting in the sense that it’s one of the final American cities where you can be here working class, you can be an artist, and you can make your life work. You’re not expelled by tech dudes, like in San Francisco or Wall Street kids like in Manhattan which have become playgrounds of the global wealthy. You can be an immigrant kid here, writing a novel or being a teacher. Adam Morgan, founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books, often says we’re in the middle of a fourth Chicago literary Renaissance. I agree wholeheartedly. People can tell their stories, and that’s the predominant story in Chicago.

I’ve lived abroad a few times and I always come back to Chicago. It’s been a place where people who don’t want to get an MFA and want to write a novel can do it because it’s a cultural Titan and affordable.

You should teach a class!

I’ve been teaching one-night classes at StoryStudio. I did one on rebellion and resistance—a lot of the students were social workers and teachers, and it was phenomenal to work with them. I’m also teaching a Novel in a Year: First Draft class—Rebecca Makkai, a brilliant writer and the Artistic Director, asked me to teach. I’m really excited about the course. Actually, this interview is giving me the idea that I should lecture on unstable reality instead of structure, or a melding of the two.

What a great gig. I’m glad you’re sharing the love via StoryStudio and beyond. Who are some of these additional authors in the Chicago Renaissance that you’re referring to?

Ahhh! This Renaissance is so damn lovely and encompasses so many more writers each year. With some wonderful additional recommendations from Adam Morgan and Miguel Jiménez, Lit & Luz Book Club Founder and Director, here are just a very few: Surely Rebecca Makkai and Luis Alberto Urrea. Mahmoud Saeed is a living legend and every Chicagoan (and far beyond that) should know his work. Kathleen Rooney, whose latest novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is so smart and gorgeous. Thomas Mundt, who writes rebelliously insane short stories! Amanda Goldblatt. Cristina Henríquez. Nate Marshall. Jose Olivarez. Emily Jungmin Yoon. Jacob Saenz. Ling Ma. Fatimah Asghar. Daniel Borzutzky. The playwright Tanya Saracho. Ruben Quesada. Gabriel Bump, Rita Woods, Catherine Adel West, Rachel Swearingen, Nancy Johnson, and, yes, Sahar Mustafah all have amazing debuts this year or early next. Also, yes, Gint Aras. Mitchell S. Jackson, whose work I adore to the moon and back, is a recent very welcomed transplant. Do we have three more pages here to name everyone?

Well, we are an online publication so technically we have infinite pages! Thank you for this excellent starter pack for our readers, a good mix of poetry and prose and established and debut authors here. I will definitely be checking these new names out!

 

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is available at most bookstores and the publisher’s website.

Edit August 3, 2020: A previous version of this interview erroneously referred to Zapata’s mother as the daughter of his Lithuanian great-grandmother, when she is actually her granddaughter. The text has been revised accordingly.

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